The Highlights:

  • Featured backs drafted in Round 4 or later of the NFL Draft have offered more value at lower ownership than those drafted in Rounds 1-3.
  • Non-featured backs drafted in Round 1 of the NFL Draft tend to be overvalued in DFS.
  • Receiving backs drafted in Round 2 or later of the NFL Draft have offered more value at lower ownership than those drafted in Round 1.

Early-round running backs have become a bit of a controversial topic lately. Despite plenty of evidence that talented backs can be found outside the first round of the NFL Draft, we’ve witnessed a top-five selection be devoted to a running back in the each of the past three years — Ezekiel Elliott (No. 4, 2016), Leonard Fournette (No. 4, 2017), and Saquon Barkley (No. 2, 2018) — after no team used a top-five pick on a running back in the three years prior. Both Elliott and Fournette finished as top-10 fantasy running backs in their rookie season, and average draft position suggests Barkley is expected to do the same.

While draft round is generally a solid predictor of opportunity for rookies, that information is not necessarily as useful in DFS. As DFS players, what we want to know is whether or not there’s value in targeting running backs based on draft round.

Using our NFL Trends tool, we’ll investigate running back fantasy success by draft round by comparing fantasy points per game, Plus/Minus (points above/below salary-based expectation), ownership, and Consistency (percentage of time meeting salary-based expectations) for each of the three fantasy-friendly running back archetypes:

  • Featured backs: Backs that averaged at least 20 carries plus targets per game (min. four games).
  • Space backs: Backs that averaged at least three targets but fewer than 10 carries per game (min. four games).
  • Early-down backs: Backs that averaged over 10 carries but fewer than three targets per game (min. four games).

We’ll look at the past four seasons of data, and running backs will be grouped into three buckets: those drafted in Round 1, those drafted in Rounds 2-3, and those drafted in Round 4 or later.

Featured Backs

Very few running backs drafted after the third round have emerged as featured workhorses over the past few seasons. Lamar Miller, Jordan Howard, Arian Foster, Devonta Freeman, and Andre Ellington are the only backs to earn featured roles after being drafted in the fourth round or later. But while featured backs have generally offered solid value regardless of the round they were drafted in, those drafted in the later rounds have posted heightened production relative to ownership:

(For reference, running backs with a salary of at least $4,000 on DraftKings have averaged 11.3 fantasy points per game, a +0.62 Plus/Minus, 45.4% Consistency, and 6.3% ownership since 2014; running backs with a salary of at least $5,000 on FanDuel have averaged 9.6 fantasy points per game, a +0.52 Plus/Minus, 44.1% Consistency, and 5.1% ownership.)

Plenty of us have watched the likes of Elliott and Todd Gurley dominate any defense placed in their paths from the time those backs turned 18 years old, and it’s easy to get behind early-round picks that are earmarked for three-down roles the second their name is called on Day 1 or Day 2, but those early-rounders have routinely come with higher ownership rates and reduced Plus/Minuses and Consistency Ratings relative to their late-round counterparts. It takes guts to carry a lot of exposure to an unproven late-round back, but consider that it takes even more guts for an NFL coaching staff to hand the reigns of the offense to an unproven player in the first place.

Space Backs

All things being equal opportunity-wise, honing in on late-round space backs over those selected in the earlier rounds has also paid dividends:

A first-round back who ends up pigeonholed into a pass-first role is usually viewed as somewhat of a disappointment, and those backs have routinely underperformed in DFS as well. This small group includes Darren McFaddenDonald BrownReggie BushChristian McCaffrey, each of whom is plenty talented in space but has failed to carve out a consistent three-down roles due to injury and/or ineffectiveness when running between the tackles.

The disparity in ownership and consistency of players selected in Rounds 2-3 compared to Round 4 and on isn’t as severe for space backs as it is for featured backs, and space backs selected outside of the first round have collectively offered heightened consistency and value along with reduced ownership compared to the average running back, especially with PPR scoring on DraftKings.

Every situation is different, of course, but while space backs drafted outside the first round have generally provided great value in DFS, it hasn’t been a great idea to target first-round backs not entrusted with a featured role. The lack of first-round picks that have earned the space back designation reenforces the notion that NFL teams believe those types of backs are readily available late.

Early-Down Backs

Early-down backs have generally not been DFS assets over the past few seasons:

Each sample group posted subpar Consistency Ratings relative to the average running back. Once again we see first-round backs not in a featured role underperforming, and late-rounders haven’t offered much value either when you consider their lack of an ownership discount and reduced Consistency.

Even on 0.5-PPR sites like FanDuel, running backs without a decent pass-game role have largely been poor fantasy options. They should probably only be targeted in games where they have optimal projected game flow and favorable front-seven matchups.

Have more questions about DFS running back value? You can use our tools to research different types of backs yourself, and be sure to check out The Action Network for more in-depth NFL analysis.

More Fantasy-Friendly Running Back Archetype Coverage

Pictured: Ezekiel Elliott
Photo Credit: Rick Osentoski – USA TODAY Sports